Buying new tires ranks pretty far down on the list of things most people want to do with their time and money, right next to replacing a failed water heater. While you might overspend on your next water heater, at least there will be a flow of warm water to wash the pain away.
Not so with tires. A poor choice of replacement rubber will haunt you every driving day for the next three to six years. The wrong tires will pound your neck, assault you with constant whining, cause your beloved sporty car to handle worse than a pickup, or scare you witless when it rains. Plus, buying new rubber is intimidating for the unprepared: Tires appear identical. Each manufacturer claims all its tires are superlative in every area. All cost more than you’d budgeted, which was “nothing.” And newer vehicles require replacement components for their tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
But this process doesn’t have to be so painful. These are our simple tips to make the tire-buying experience a little better.
If You Were Happy With Your Old Tires
If you like the way your car performs, the answer is easy: Buy the exact same model you had. There’s a good reason—the tire and car companies spend nearly $1 million to develop a tire with the attributes that make you like your car. The original equipment tire was selected to highlight the vehicle’s good features and, often, smooth over weaknesses. If you’re satisfied with your car, go with tires that exactly match the original equipment tires. Tell the counter person that close isn’t good enough.
If your complaint is that your vehicle lacks traction in the rain, especially in deep water, think back to when the car was new. Did it handle well in the rain back then? If so, your problem is probably low tread depth, which means you don’t need different tires, just new ones.
(Not sure whether it’s time to replace the tires? There’s no consensus among car- and tiremakers on acceptable tire life, but keep a close eye on tires that have been on a vehicle, used as a spare, or stored in a hot or sunny location for more than six years. For a tire’s “born on” date, check the sidewall for an alphanumeric series that begins with “DOT.” The last four digits are the week and year the tire was made: “1209” means the tire was built in the 12th week of 2009.)
When you try to replace your tires with the same model that came on the car, you might run into sticker shock—original equipment tires can be expensive. However, carmakers offer every vehicle with at least two brands of tires. Some Web surfing will reveal the alternate brand. Keep in mind, though, that tires developed for a different trim level of your vehicle likely will be very different from those on your model. The tires for the sporty edition will ride harsher and have little traction in snow. If you want to save money by putting tires from the base model on your sporty version, they may make it handle like, well, the base model.
You’ll also need to take tire life into account. If you drive a sporty car, 20,000 miles is about all you can expect. Short tire longevity is one of the prices you pay for driving a vehicle with power and handling once reserved for full-on race cars. Today, even conservative cars, crossovers, and sport utility vehicles boast horsepower once unmatched by ultrahigh-performance cars. In addition, safety, comfort, and entertainment features have added hundreds of pounds to the average vehicle. Unleashing those extra horses—and stopping and turning all that weight—takes its toll on tires.
If your original equipment tires are not available, both online tire stores and the tire manufacturer will suggest reasonable facsimiles. They will not duplicate your experience exactly, but simply having new tires, much like a fresh hair style, will likely overcome the differences.
If You Want Something New
There’s hope for those who are unhappy with the way their car rides or handles. The trend of large-diameter wheels and low-profile tires has many accidental performance buyers complaining about ride comfort. A switch from ultrahigh-performance tires to those labeled “grand touring” or “touring” might soften the ride a bit. Check the consumer reviews at online tire sellers. Know that the change unavoidably will make handling less precise and reduce grip.
It’s easier if you want more performance from your car: Switch from the original all-season tires to summer ones (or, as they should be called, three-season tires). They’ll provide a lot more grip, wet or dry, at the expense of a harsher ride and no traction in the snow.
The most important rule: Do your research before you show up. Your trip to the tire store will be far less intimidating if you first assess your situation and budget, and then spend an evening surfing the sites of tire manufacturers, online tire sellers, and especially your local tire store.